Nfld. & Labrador

Whooo is in there? Tiny northern saw-whet owls nesting near Corner Brook

The northern saw-whet owl has officially been documented as living in Newfoundland and Labrador — and they're really cute.

This is the first documented instance of the tiny owls in this province

The plans for the nest boxes have very specific dimensions from Scandinavian researchers to attract boreal owls.

Northern saw-whet owls are not only incredibly cute, they're now confirmed as a nesting species in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The nest was discovered by College of the North Atlantic fish and wildlife student Brendan Kelly, who along with research partner Sarah Butt, had built nesting boxes hoping to attract boreal owls.

Kelly discovered the two northern saw-whet owls about 900 metres apart in separate nest boxes. When he returned to check on them a week later, he found something else.

"The first box had six eggs and the second box had five eggs," Kelly said.

Sarah Butt, who is Brendan Kelly's research partner, says they have been conducting research on owls for two years. (Sarah Butt/Instagram)

"I found out this was the first and second nesting record for [northern saw-whet owls] in the province," he said.

The tiny owls, found just outside Corner Brook, had never been recorded nesting here before.

Nesting records are essentially when someone has found and documented a nest of a bird.

"They've been able to photograph it and have people who are experienced and have knowledge or experts confirm and agree, yes, this is the species and yes, this is in fact an active nest," he said. 

Brendan Kelly built nest boxes for boreal owls but attracted northern saw-whet owls instead. (Submitted)

About the size of a medium Tim Hortons coffee 

While they're very similar to the Boreal owl, they're a lot smaller in size.

"An adult saw-whet owl is about the size of a medium coffee cup from Tim Hortons," Kelly said.

"People often think that they're baby owls, but they're fully grown. But they're extremely small; they have a disc-like face like most owls, and they're a creamy colour and for the most part they have a very prominent white eyebrow and two very big yellow eyes," he said.

Northern saw-whet owls are almost identical to boreal owls, except they're smaller in size. (Submitted by Brendan Kelly )

He got the plans for the nest boxes — with very specific dimensions — from Scandinavian researchers to attract boreal owls, which are almost identical to northern saw-whet owls, just slightly larger.

"This year one thing that I did do differently is I covered the boxes in birch bark, so the boxes blend in perfectly with birch trees and you would never say it's even a nest box," he said.

Those covered in birch attracted the owls, while those left plain were empty. 

"Two weeks ago myself, a classmate, and a wildlife official went back and were actually able to band the birds," Kelly said.

The bands will let other researchers who may catch them in the future know that they were hatched and raised in Newfoundland.

This is a range expansion for the species.

Two instances of nesting for northern saw-whet owls were found in nest boxes like these made by Brendan Kelly. (Submitted by Brendan Kelly )

"Saw-whet owls as a whole population across Canada at least are moving further north, and I don't know if that's climate change," he said.

They could be following their prey, according to Kelly.

"Over the last couple decades we've seen several small mammal species become introduced or accidentally introduced to the province and those include the red-backed vole, the deer mouse, the masked shrew, the eastern chipmunk, red squirrels," Kelly said.

Kelly and Butt have been researching owls in the area for two years. 

Kelly is planning to further his wildlife studies in the fall on Prince Edward Island and hopes to work more with the northern saw-whet owl population in Newfoundland and Labrador. 


Alyson Samson is a journalist working with the CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador.